01/14/18 “Call and Response: Philip and Nathanael”


John 1:43-51

There used to be a newspaper feature that I liked a lot.  It was by columnist Sydney Harris, and it was called “Things I Learned While Looking Up Other Things.”  One of the things I’ve learned about while looking up other things is something called “Call and Response.” It’s often associated with music, but “Call and Response” is a very basic part of human communication.  It’s a form of interaction between a speaker and an audience, in which the speaker’s statements (the “calls”) are punctuated by responses from the listeners.

The military is famous for their sing-song march cadences where the drill instructor calls out and the marchers respond.  But it happens in a lot of other situations, too.  If you’re an Ohio State fan, you know that when someone calls out “O-H,” you’re supposed to respond with “I-O.”  Marc and I are fans of the UT Women’s Basketball team, and whenever the opposing team commits a turnover and the Rockets get the ball, the game announcer calls out “basketball to…T-O-L” and the crowd responds “E-D-O.”  We do it in church, too.  Each week, Amy begins our time of singing with a call and response: she says, “God is good,” and we respond “all the time.” She says, “All the time,” and we say “God is good.”  Call and response.

I’ll bet you’ll start noticing this even in your communication with your friends and loved ones.  I don’t remember how Marc and I started doing this, but for years, when one of us does something kind of dumb, the other will say, “Oh, I love you in spite of yourself,” and the response to that always is, “No, you love me because of myself.”

As I read the lectionary passages for the weeks after Christmas, I realized that many of them were stories of call and response.  God called people, and people responded.   Throughout history, God has used a variety of ways to call individuals, and they have responded in a variety of ways.  Their calls and responses reflect the ways in which we might hear and respond to God’s call to us. So, for the next few weeks, we’re going to hear some Bible stories of how God called and people responded, and we’ll think about what they can teach us as we try to respond faithfully to God’s call.

As John relates how the disciples were called, Philip and Nathanael were the 3rd and 4th men named as disciples.  In the verses before ours, John tells us that Andrew was one of two men who had been John the Baptist’s disciples.  In Bethany, John pointed Jesus out to these two men, describing him as the Lamb of God.  The two men followed Jesus, and Jesus invited them to the place where he was staying.  After spending the afternoon with Jesus, Andrew realized that he had found the Messiah.  He in turn went and found his brother Simon, who would come to be called Peter.

The day after that, Jesus went to Galilee.  There he found Philip, who came from the same town as Andrew and Peter.  That little word “found” is an interesting one.  John uses it five times in five verses—a clue that it is important. It’s interesting because it has two meanings in the Greek language of John’s gospel.  It can mean that you just stumble across someone or something, or it can mean that the finding is the result of intense searching.

It’s also an appropriate word because in John’s Gospel (in the passage before ours), the first words Jesus speaks come in the form of a question to John’s followers: “What are you looking for?”  After spending the afternoon with Jesus, one of the two—Andrew—went and found his brother Simon.  Andrew searched until he found his brother, and then he told him what he had found: the Messiah.

In our passage we learn that Jesus found Philip.  Philip is the first disciple in John’s gospel to hear the words, “Follow me.” In fact, according to John, it’s the only time Jesus speaks those words directly to someone until he says them twice to Peter on the beach after the resurrection.  We don’t know what words Philip may have said in response to Jesus’ call, but we know what he did: he went and found Nathanael.

Philip may have just stumbled across Nathanael, running into him at the market or while strolling along the streets of Bethsaida.  But it’s also possible that Philip was seeking Nathanael—actively looking for him.  His “finding” may have been the result of his “searching,” with the express purpose of telling Nathanael what he had found. I imagine him talking with Nathanael with excitement in his voice.  “We’ve found him!  We’ve found the one Moses wrote about in the law!  We’ve found the one the prophets announced!  And guess what?  He’s Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth!”

Nathanael’s reaction to Philip’s announcement is less than enthusiastic.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael asks.  You might think that Nathanael’s response was kind of a put-down.  Maybe Nathanael, who lived in the bustling fishing village of Bethsaida, a suburb of the bigger city of Capernaum, might have looked down his nose at the little backwater town of Nazareth, a town so insignificant that it doesn’t even show up in any ancient writings other than the Bible.  We can imagine him snorting with laughter and rolling his eyes at the thought that the words of Moses and the prophets would be fulfilled in puny Nazareth.

But there’s another possibility: that Nathanael knew his Scripture.  He knew the history and the promised future of his people and, according to Scripture, Nazareth does not figure in that future.  So, his question may be a perfectly legitimate one:  How could you find the one who would fulfil the words of Moses and the prophets in someone who comes from Nazareth?

In light of such a question, it would have been perfectly understandable if Philip had backed off and gone looking for a more receptive audience.  But instead he says the same thing to Nathanael that Jesus had said to Andrew: “Come and see.”

Nathanael takes Philip up on his invitation and meets Jesus.  He meets a man who knew him before he arrived in Jesus’ presence.  He meets a man who knows about his doubts and the reasons he has for them.  He meets a man who understands what kind of person he is—that he is a model of faithfulness to the Law, which Jesus acknowledges by calling him an Israelite.  And of all the men who have met Jesus in the past few days, it is the doubter Nathanael who comes to see most clearly who Jesus is—a Rabbi, yes, but more importantly, the Son of God and the King of Israel.

So, what do the stories of how Jesus called Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathanael and their responses to that call have to teach us about being responsive disciples?

The first thing these stories tell us is that God often calls us through other people.  Maybe there was one person whose life with Jesus made you curious about who he was.  Their own passion for him made you want to see for yourself.  Andrew shared what he had learned with his brother, and Simon went to meet Jesus.  Philip found Nathanael and shared what he had discovered, and Nathanael, too, went to meet Jesus.  What these stories teach us is to listen carefully to those who have a firm relationship with Jesus, because they may be able to lead us to a deeper relationship of our own.

The second thing the stories teach us is that people often find Jesus because we find them first.  God sends us to find others to tell the Good News to.  Jesus calls each of us to the Great Commission: to go and make disciples of all nations.  That’s kind of a scary prospect.  Who are we supposed to find and tell? There’s your brother-in-law, but who wants to upset the family get-together?  There’s that co-worker, but you need to tread carefully at the office.  There’s the child who plays with your kids, but you’re not sure how their parents would feel.  Telling others about what we have found is hard, but we learn from John that when we find someone to tell, we may be the channel through which God calls them.

Then, we wonder what we should say.  But the third thing we learn from these stories is that we don’t have to have all the answers to the world’s deep theological questions.  We don’t have to have a snappy comeback for any objection.  We don’t even have to have a complete understanding of who Jesus is.  All we need is to be able to tell our own story about what Jesus means to us and how our faith in him makes a difference in our own lives.

That’s what Philip did.  He told Nathanael who he had found.  But when Nathanael had doubts and questions, Philip did some very wise things.  First, he didn’t let Nathanael’s skepticism put him off.  Nathanael voiced an objection in the form of a hard question.  He was doubtful.  His own experience and understanding suggested that Philip might be wrong.  But he hadn’t shut the door on Philip.

So, Philip continued to offer a call to Nathanael.  In doing that, he didn’t try to convince Nathanael that he was being a snob and should be broader-minded when it came to the little town of Nazareth.  He didn’t try to come up with all the Scripture passages that would prove he was right. He didn’t launch into a theological explanation of why a Messiah from Nazareth met all the scriptural expectations.  Philip just said to Nathanael, “Come and see for yourself.”  Philip gave Nathanael a chance to experience Jesus and then decide for himself whether Jesus was who Philip thought he was.  Philip invited Nathanael to an encounter with Jesus and was confident that Jesus would take it from there.  Jesus expects no more (or less) from us.

Finally, we learn from these stories that when we take the bold step of allowing God to call another person through us, we can be sure that God has already been working in that their life.  It’s that “prevenient” aspect of grace—that wherever we are or go, God has been there ahead of us. When Nathanael asked how Jesus knew about him, Jesus made it clear that he had seen Nathanael before Philip called him.  Philip was the agent who brought Nathanael to Jesus, but Jesus was already present in Nathanael’s life.  Jesus already knows the needs of the people we find, before we find them.

I had an experience like that back when Peyton was in kindergarten.  She had gone to the home of her new friend Catherine to play after school.  When I went to pick her up, Catherine’s mother Emily invited me in for a cup of tea.  As we chatted, I mentioned that I had a meeting at church that evening.  Emily asked me, “So you’re a Christian?”  When I said yes, she said, “I’ve never gone to church, and I don’t really know anything about Jesus.  Can you tell me about him?”

I don’t know how long I sat there, wondering what to say.  But eventually I was able to start sharing what I knew of Jesus. I told her about how I had grown up in the church but hadn’t really “gotten” what it meant to be a follower of Jesus until I was in my 30s.  I told her that I had come to realize how much God loves me, that I didn’t have to earn God’s love.  I told her that Jesus—in some way I still don’t fully understand—gave up his life so that I could fully live, and my life has been richer and freer because of what I’ve found in him.

Do you want to know something really strange about that experience?  My meeting was actually a Bible study class, and the week before we had been challenged to find someone who didn’t know about Jesus and introduce them to him.  I had not been able to think of anyone, and then I “found” Emily.  And I learned that, like Philip, all I  had to be ready to do was to tell Emily what I had found.

When we invite others to “come and see,” we give them a chance to observe what Jesus means to us, and it opens the door for them to experience him for themselves.  Jesus knew that about the disciples of John, and he knew it about Nathanael—that they needed to experience him before their eyes were opened.  And when Nathanael did have that encounter with Jesus, and he experienced for himself how well Jesus knew him, he came to understand who Jesus was—more clearly even than Philip, who made the encounter possible.  As a result of Philip’s invitation, Nathanael experienced for himself the one who is the very connection between God and humanity.

Call and response.  God calls us to a relationship through our faith in Jesus, and that call can come in many ways.  Jesus may call us directly, as he did Philip, or he may call us as he called Nathanael, through someone else. Then, as we respond in faithfulness to him, he may use us to call others. May we be blessed in our hearing and responding to God’s call, even as we are used to invite others to come and see.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young